Agroecology versus 'climate smart' - our next big challenge from COP22

| 30th November 2016
Traditional agriculture on a farm in Cuba, where organic and agroecological farming now produce most of the nation's food. Photo: Tach_RedGold&Green via Flickr (CC BY-SA).
Traditional agriculture on a farm in Cuba, where organic and agroecological farming now produce most of the nation's food. Photo: Tach_RedGold&Green via Flickr (CC BY-SA).
How to make farming 'climate friendly' was one of the hot topics at COP22 in Marrakesh, writes Natalie Bennett, with two contrasting models on show: 'climate smart' agriculture, with its reliance on industrial farming systems; and agroecology, which works with nature to build fertile, high-carbon, moisture-retaining soils, and sustain employment for millions of skilled land workers.
Climate change is only one of many pressing environmental issues that threaten our future. Agroecology also addresses biodiversity loss, soil degradation, pollution of our rivers and oceans, while creating huge numbers of jobs and building food security.

Agriculture was one key focus for the global climate change talks that have just concluded in Marrakesh. There's two good reasons for that.

One is that it's one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions as a sector, on a par with transport and industry.

It contributes about 12% of emissions directly, but add in forestry and other landuse changes, much of which (about 70%) involves clearing of land for agriculture, and that account for another 12% of GHG emissions.

On electricity generation and transport, the ways forward towards a sustainable future are clear. Electricity generation needs to be via renewables, and there needs to be a strong focus on reducing the need for energy through energy efficiency.

As for transport, we need a massive modal shift to 'active transport' (like walking and cycling) and public transport, with electric cars to fill in the gaps. We mightn't be doing enough, but broadly we know what needs to be done.

When it comes to agriculture, however, we don't really have a clear idea of the way forward. That's one reason why the discussions in Marrakesh were so important.

'Adaptation means ensuring there's enough food to go round'

The other reason is that there's two aspects of policies on climate change. They are known as mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation means preventing emissions (or drawing carbon out of the atmosphere), and adaptation means working with the changing climate and protecting human societies.

Adaptation means, put simply, survival. The agricultural issue that featured high on many sessions in Marrakesh - in the Africa pavilion in particular but by no means exclusively - was food security.

It is worth saying there is currently plenty of food in the world. The fact that 800 million people regularly go to bed hungry is a failure of distribution, not production.

But the world's population is growing, and production is under threat from the damage being done by the industrial agriculture that's trashing our soils, drawing down fossil water supplies and polluting our rivers and oceans.

Adaptation means ensuring there's enough food to go around in future in our changing climate. That's a huge ask.

Under even a 'business as usual' scenario, one part of reducing greenhouse gas emissions is relatively easy, at least politically - avoiding food loss and waste: that could have a big impact. Another - reducing the use of nitrogen fertilisers, which can result in the production of the potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide - is at least imaginable.

Further, we could reduce total meat consumption, which would also be a positive for human health. There's also mooted technical solutions to reduce the methane production from livestock, including improving feeding and breeding, feeding methane inhibitors to livestock and better management of manure.

'Climate smart' versus agroecology

Then we need to start greater changes to agriculture. Industrial farming has massively reduced the amount of carbon stored in the soil (as has clearing forests for arable farming). Changing the system of farming is essential to start to restore that.

Two models of the future were setting out their stall at COP:

  • One is known as 'Climate Smart Agriculture'. It's basically a business-as-usual model with technological tweaks. It's the model of agribusiness, of the giant multinational companies that dominate much of the profits of global agriculture, of grand promises from genetically modified organisms that have failed to deliver even what they've promised so far, even while small-scale farmers on generally low incomes dominate the production of food.
  • The other is agroecology, an approach that aims to work with nature rather than to master it, that focuses on biodiverse farming, using local skills and knowledge, and locally developed crops and varieties, with minimal outside inputs. It's an approach that encourages small independent businesses, lots of jobs, and varied seasonal food supplies for communities.

I believe that agroecology is the only possible approach: climate change is only one of many pressing environmental issues that threaten our future and that of the Earth as a balanced ecosystem. Agroecology addresses such diverse problems as biodiversity loss, soil degradation, pollution of our rivers and oceans. And it can create huge numbers of jobs, sustain small businesses, and offer far greater food security.

Understandably, there was at COP a lot of talk about the development of agroecology for the Global South, where food security is the most obviously pressing issue. But I'm interested in how we can develop this in the UK - where we also need to think hard about food security - given that we import 40% of our food, and 75% of our fruit and vegetables, which are particularly critical for health.

Building agroecology from the roots up

At the moment most towns and cities have one, or at most a handful, of market garden-type farms operating in more or less an agroecological manner - through cooperatives, through Community Supported Agriculture, through individual effort. Many rely on volunteer labour to help keep them going, and/or school visits and 'farm tourism' for at least some of their income. That's not a model scalable to the size we need.

I've seen a couple of examples heading in a more commercial direction - Riverside Market Garden outside Cardiff, which had funding from the Welsh government explicitly to help to develop a commercial model, the Kindling Trust in Manchester, OrganicLea in London.

On a larger scale, there are organic farms (and farms operating with these kinds of methods, if not formally organic), mostly family-owned, operating in as responsible a way as the current legislative and economic frameworks allow them, producing food in larger quantities.

It's a start, but we need a great deal more. And as a 'co-benefit' in the language of COP, we'd also get many thousands of small independent businesses, huge numbers of good jobs - and far better tasting food available to more people, without the choking hold of the supermarkets over supplies.

Changes in our economy, society and treatment of the environment for the common good - that makes agroecology one essential part of our future. We've made a start but there's a very long way to go.



Natalie Bennett attended the COP talks in Marrakesh with the Green Economics Institute.


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